It’s been almost eight months since the Kannada film Thithi began its winning spree across international film festivals. Interestingly, however, the jury is still out on which genre it should be filed under. “It’s quite a chameleon of a film,” explains its writer-director Raam Reddy. To the Europeans, Thithi was a straight up comedy. Here in India, it’s been viewed as a piercing social satire. To Reddy, it’s neither.
Within the first 10 minutes of Thithi, there is death. A 101-year-old man, known as Century Gowda in his village, drops dead while answering nature’s call. “This scene led to out loud laughter at the Locarno Film Festival. They found it hilarious that the nearby animals noticed his death before the villagers. But no one in India thought it was humorous,” recalls Reddy.
Oddly, he says the most apt evaluation came from a review in India that had intended to pan the film. “It said something like Thithi is made by some guys who took a handycam and documented everyday life in a village and now they’re calling it a film,” adds Reddy, with a chuckle. This is partly true. It’s also why every element of Thithi – right from its setting, to its non-professional cast, to its hand-stitched poster that took three months to create – feels real, authentic and organic.
The film follows the lives of three generations of sons and their complex relationships which unravel in the run up to the thithi (death ceremony) they must organise for Century Gowda, the head of their family. The loss has impacted all three men differently. Their emotions are effectively portrayed by rookie actors who were discovered by Reddy and his writer Eregowda from amongst the residents of Nodekoppalu, a village in Karnataka. In fact, one might argue that the story behind putting together Thithi is as compelling as the film itself. For instance, the germ of scripting a narrative around death was sown while Eregowda distributed thithi cards for his own grandmother.
Through his college days, Reddy had imagined that his first feature film would be something like an Indian version of Into the Wild. But 20 minutes after setting foot into Nodekoppalu, the 26-year-old filmmaker had changed his mind. This was Reddy’s first real taste of village life – he’s a Bangalore resident who’s been educated in New Delhi and Prague.
While the residents of Nodekoppalu amused Reddy, their way of life was quite regular for his writer and childhood friend Eregowda, who belongs to the same village. “My experience of walking through the village was one of deep fascination. I thought, ‘This is what I should be making’,” says Reddy. By and by, the story and the characters of Thithi began to appear before him, almost miraculously.
The first person Reddy met in the village was a tea stall owner called Channegowda, who then ended up playing the central character of ‘Gadappa’, the name literally translates into ‘man with a beard’. Channegowda is also Eregowda’s uncle. In the film, he plays the free-spirited and carefree son of Century Gowda who couldn’t care less about losing his father. Instead, he spends his time aimlessly walking across the village, puffing beedis and taking frequent swigs of alcohol. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t think twice before slyly swiping Rs 100 from a farmer, but also generously donates his wealth to others when they are robbed.
“He’s actually called Gadappa in the village. I didn’t have to make that up. He doesn’t drink in real life but there’s a lot about his personality that I retained in the character. About 40 years ago, he left his village and settled in a forest. And then a village sprung up around him. There’s a purity and child-like quality about him,” says Reddy. “I feel it is people like him who make me want to work with non-professionals again.”
However, there’s a flip side to that. Working with non-actors is not just a test of patience. While Reddy says making them learn their lines was the hardest bit, there was also a time when the lead actor suddenly decided to get himself a new haircut in the middle of the shoot. “We had to halt the shoot for a couple of weeks till it grew back out,” says Reddy.
He has even made a few mistakes of his own. “Since we were all donning several hats, I was also handling the hair and make-up. One day, I wiped off an actor’s entire moustache by mistake with my electric trimmer,” he recalls.
But all that trouble now seems worth it. The simple village folk of Nodekoppalu have become world famous actors and Reddy has collected accolades from several international festivals, including the Grand Jury prize at MAMI 2015. About the genre, Reddy is still undecided, but that ambiguity too has turned out to be a blessing for him. “If you get the spirituality of the film you’re enriched. If you don’t, at least you’re entertained. It’s something I think I’ll continue doing in all my films.”